The top federal prosecutor in Arizona resigned abruptly Tuesday in the midst of a growing investigation about a program designed to let straw buyers purchase weapons for Mexican cartels.
Dennis Burke, in a prepared statement, made no mention of the Fast and Furious program which he helped coordinate as the U.S. Attorney for Arizona. It was designed, according to the Department of Justice, to let the guns get into the hands of those not legally entitled to have them, creating an opportunity for prosecution.
But the program went seriously wrong, with agents losing track of more than half the 2,000-plus weapons.
Two of those that were lost in the process showed up at the scene where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot to death last year near Rio Rico. And officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and explosives admitted its agents are aware of 11 instances where a firearm that was supposed to be part of Fast and Furious was recovered in connection with a violent crime in this country.
Burke did not say whether his resignation, just a week after he was questioned by congressional investigators, was requested or demanded by his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder. Instead, Burke said simply it was the "right time to move on.''
And Holder, in his own statement, also made no mention of Fast and Furious, instead issuing a statement crediting Burke for his work in Arizona. Previously, Burke was chief of staff for Janet Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona, before Napolitano became Homeland Security secretary in the Obama administration.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been conducting hearings into Fast and Furious, said this change and the reassignment of acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson which also was announced Tuesday were "warranted.''
And in a separate move, Emory Hurley, the assistant U.S. attorney in Burke's office who was responsible for the day-to-day operations of Fast and Furious, was reassigned to the civil division. Sandra Raynor, a spokeswoman for the office, said that was at Hurley's request.
Issa, however, made it clear he believes that responsibility goes even further up the line. He said the resignations "offer an opportunity for the Justice Department to explain the role other officials and offices played in the infamous efforts to allow weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels.''
The congressman also said that Melson told congressional investigators that the Department of Justice "is managing its response in a manner intended to protect its political appointees.'' And Issa said that the resignations will not be the end of the matter, saying he and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, will continue their inquiry "to press the Department of Justice for answers in order to ensure that a reckless effort like Fast and Furious does not take place again.''
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who has been a critic of Fast and Furious, said Burke's ouster, whether voluntary or not, is long overdue. But he does not want the inquiry to end there.
"The footsteps now have gotten that much closer to the attorney general, Eric Holder, himself,'' he said. And Babeu said more than an investigation is needed.
"They need to come clean,'' he said. Babeu said the role of the program in the death of the border patrol agent amounts to "a significant cover-up.''
The sheriff acknowledged there is some basis for the idea of using contraband to go after the major players in a criminal scheme rather than simply busting low-level functionaries. But Babeu said while that makes sense with cash or drugs, it is "outrageous'' to let dangerous weapons make their way into the hands of gang members, especially when there was no easy way to track the guns.
Attorney Lincoln Combs who represents agent Terry's family in what eventually will be a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government, said he does not know whether Burke is taking the fall for decisions made by those higher up.
"Obviously, we feel like he had some role in what happened,'' Combs said.
"But we don't know to what extent,'' he continued. "So we certainly have no idea if he's a scapegoat or what the political forces are at work.''
In a written response to questions from congressional investigators last month, Ronald Weich, an assistant attorney general, responded that Fast and Furious was first conceived in 2009. According to Weich, Burke "became aware'' of the program early last year and was "generally briefed'' on aspects of the case by both ATF and the Department of Justice.
At a congressional hearing earlier this year, ATF agent John Dodson told Issa's committee that his agency routinely allowed the purchase of guns it knew would wind up in the hands of Mexican cartel members.
Dodson said Phoenix firearms dealers gave his agency the names of more than 40 people who were likely buying guns meant for criminals. But he said ATF "did nothing,'' instead allowing the sales to take place in hopes of finding out where they were going.
"ATF failed to fulfill our most fundamental obligations, to caretake (cq) the public trust, in part, to keep guns out of the hands of criminals,'' Dodson testified.
Earlier this month, Burke and Hurley asked a federal judge to deny a request by the parents of the slain Border Patrol agent to be considered "victims'' of the crime. That would have entitled them to be kept informed of the status of the prosecution of Jaime Avila Jr. who is accused of buying weapons from stores in Phoenix on behalf of Mexican gangs.
In their filing, they said it has not been determined if Avila is linked to the weapon that killed Terry. In any event, they argued, Avila is charged with illegal purchase of firearms, something that does not require proof of harm to any individual.